Pitch Wars Prep: All About Comp Titles
Writers who are querying or applying to Pitch Wars often have a lot of questions about comp titles. What's an acceptable comp title to use? Is this title too old or too popular? Or is it not popular enough? So I thought I'd give my perspective as a Pitch Wars mentor now in my third go-round.
The first thing to know about comp titles is that they're not going to make or break you. Seriously. It's true that a comp title might catch my eye, but I never make any decisions based on comp titles alone. You can always change your comp titles. In fact, my co-mentor Adrianna and I often help brainstorm comp titles with our mentees. Really, it's just not that big of a deal.
For purposes of querying (or Pitch Wars), the purpose of a comp title is simply to offer an idea of what kind of book you're submitting. A literary middle-grade is very different from a fast-paced adventure story. The comp titles should communicate that.
Some writers think that comp titles should reveal the subject of their book. So, if you're writing about zombie narwhals, you need to find a book about zombie narwhals as a comp. (Good luck with that!) This can be particularly challenging for marginalized writers. For example, if you are writing about a disability that has not been well-represented in literature, you may despair at finding a comp title.
The good news is that you don't actually have to do that. There are many different ways to find a comp title. Here are some of my recommendations:
Tone and voice--
This is actually a super-important element that you can communicate with comp titles. Yes, you're writing a fantasy (for example), but is it written in a literary style? Or is it more fast-paced and humorous? Are you trying to spook people? Awe us with the beauty of your prose? All of that comes down to tone and voice. If you comp Tae Keller's WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, I am going to have very different expectations going into it than if you comp Graci Kim's THE LAST FALLEN STAR.
Sometimes you may not know whether your book is more literary or commercial. I was pretty confused about this when I first queried GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN!, in all honesty. So it might be helpful to write down words that describe your tone and voice ("funny," "mysterious," "haunting"). Then, find comp titles that match.
Every book has a theme, whether you realize it or not. For purposes of finding comp titles, you don't need to go deep into English class-type stuff. ("The Great Gatsby is about the unattainability of the American dream.")
Instead, consider what issues your books explores. Is it about the mother/daughter relationship? Dealing with grief? Figuring out one's identity? Learning how to speak up in the face of injustice?
Theme can be a really effective way to give a snapshot of your book. I do have one word of caution, however. You should try to avoid comparing your book to a book that explores a theme that is very specific to a particular oppressed community unless you are also exploring the same issue in reference to the same community. For example: One of my favorite books is LIKE A LOVE STORY by Abdi Nazemian. The book explores the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s primarily from the perspective of gay teenage boys. So if I were to see someone use LIKE A LOVE STORY as a comp, I would naturally expect to see a book that explores the HIV/AIDS epidemic from an LGBTQ+ perspective. If it doesn't, well, I would be kind of weirded out and confused.
If the setting is particularly unique, or important to your book, you may choose a comp title based on setting. Small-town rural Canada is going to give different vibes than turn-of-the-century Paris or a generational spaceship. The right comp instantly communicates where your story takes place and how that might shape the characters, plot, tone, etc.
For speculative stories with unique worldbuilding elements, pick a comp based on worldbuilding. For example, your magic system may draw from elements of the same culture. Or maybe your magic system simply has certain vibes, whether it's dark and bloody or more whimsical. If you say, "magic in the vein of LOVE SUGAR MAGIC," I immediately expect something fun and probably based in baking. If your magic system requires a blood sacrifice every time you cast a spell, well, you'd use a different comp.
Oftentimes, referencing a specific character in a comp provides a more vivid picture of your story than simply a title. We've all seen Avatar: The Last Airbender Comps, but if I said to you, "this character has a journey like Zuko," you know what that means in a very specific way.
Generally, this works best for characters that are both very well-known. So if you're going down this track, you need to select properties that are big names. The characters themselves should also be distinctive. In the Avatar example, Zuko is a more specific comp than Aang because Zuko's journey is more memorable and unique.
If you are writing about a group that is underrepresented in traditionally published books, a comp title may be one good way to get that across. For example, when I queried GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN!, I compared it to THE SOMEDAY BIRDS by Sally Pla, another book that features an autistic main character.
It is totally okay if there isn't a book that fully encapsulates the representation in your book. But if there is one, that may be a good comp.
In general, it can be really helpful to specify in your query why you are comping a particular title. Let's say you want to comp to Gilmore Girls, one of my personal favorites. In that case, the comp doesn't really tell us much because it's not clear what elements of the show are going to be in your book. Is it the mother-daughter relationship? Quirky small town? Slow-burn romance? Bookish protagonist? Specificity helps create interest for your book.
Don't worry too much about your comps being too popular or not popular enough. You definitely should not comp to Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, or any other book that is a multimillion dollar franchise. Other than that, however, everything's fair game. Comping to a piece of media outside of books is fine, so long as you have a book comp also. At least one comp should be a book published within the last five-ish years. (Not a hard and fast rule! Just a good general guideline.)
So, that's my schpiel on comp titles. Like I said, you really don't need to stress about this too much. But if you're stuck, I hope these strategies help.